Stelio Savante is a prolific and hard-working South African actor, who has built a solid reputation for himself and demonstrated it is possible to create a career doing what you love.
Spling caught up with the busy actor, who has a number of projects lined up to talk about two of his latest films, No Postage Necessary and Running for Grace.
How did you come to be involved in No Postage Necessary and Running for Grace?
No Postage Necessary: The producers and director were already familiar with my work from several films and offered me the role from an early draft of the script.
Running for Grace: The casting director recommended me for the role, I self-taped and the producers and director offered me the role.
Can you tell us a bit about Ames and Mayor – was there any resonance for you?
Ames: The Federal Agent with a chip on his shoulder because he feels overlooked and under-appreciated. So he takes a calculated risk and finds himself caught in a game of cat and mouse. He is comfortable in his own skin and that rang true to me.
Mayor: Is an immigrant trying to do the right thing by his employer and the immigrant workers that he has authority over. I identified with his struggle and his conflict very personally. Not only because I’m an immigrant but because my late father was an immigrant to South Africa from Europe himself.
How did you prepare for these roles?
Ames: In terms of research, I had conversations with a friend who’s former FBI… his observations about the way Federal Agents have been portrayed in films was very beneficial. I used that info as part of the same process and prep that I’ve used for roles for years and of course conversations with the writer/director discussing backstory.
Mayor: Once again my conversation with the writer/director was a crucial part of the prep, but Mayor’s wants and needs came very naturally to me. I wanted them to be raw and salt of the earth and not refined, so I spent time with a Portuguese immigrant learning about their struggle and of course to discuss the accent.
Did you enjoy working opposite George and Matt?
I’ve become pretty friendly with both George and Matt but on the day on set, it’s not really about enjoyment as much as it is about discovery, chemistry and being present and honest.
George: is intelligent and generous and not afraid to work hard, so we really got into the layers of the two character’s relationship and you can’t beat that… the dialogue is secondary to what is driving the characters and we got a lot of mileage out of our scenes.
Matt: is so likable and we spent time together off set. He showed me portions of the Afro-Cuban music documentary he’s doing and I found it fascinating. My wife is Cuban, I find jazz very relaxing and it was a history lesson for me. Working with him was one of the most natural, open experiences I’ve had on set in almost 20 years. He cares, he listens, and he’s easy going. We got along very well both creatively and personally.
Did you get a chance to work with Michael and Jim?
Yes, I brought Michael into the film; he’s been a friend for years. We’ve done plays/readings together and we’ve hung out socially for a long time (over the years). I also pressed our generous director Jeremy to give us a scene together because I felt it would make the script/story more cohesive and that these two characters needed to meet prior to their showdown.
I’ve worked with Jim before in several scenes on Person of Interest a few years ago and I also know him personally so I’m used to his intensity. He’s terrific, he’s got these eyes that just elicit commitment and reaction from you. Jim is a class act.
What was the most challenging aspect of each of your performances?
Ames: To make sure he’s not stereotypical. It was a dominant part of my research because of the way federal agents have been portrayed. So his choices needed to be unique while staying true to honoring the writing and the character.
Mayor: To give him a flaw… when I first read Mayor he felt too likable and he’s had a hard life, he’s a blue
collar immigrant trying to do the right thing but that doesn’t mean he’s perfect.
What did you learn from your time shooting ‘No Postage Necessary’ – I understand it’s made history?
Well the history is on the distribution side – it is the first film in history to be available for purchase through Bitcoin and crypto. But what I also re-learned and had forgotten was how pathetically humid Tampa/St. Pete can be. So when my family visited me, I took every opportunity to visit the beach. It was also a good producing experience for me as I helped in several avenues. Jeremy and Charleene were outstanding producing partners.
Do you think cryptocurrency is the future for film-making?
I think it is far too early to know.
What is your most cherished memory from No Postage Necessary and Running for Grace?
No Postage Necessary: The relationships and friendships formed over those few weeks with the producers and director have been special.
Running for Grace: Discovering Hawaii and its people. I feel honored to have spent time with actor and stuntman Jon Sakata. He passed away from cancer not long after we wrapped. His father Harold Sakata played Odd Job in Goldfinger and both Jon and his father are very loved Hawaiians that locals are extremely proud of. I treasure the conversations, the meals we had together and trips we took while I was there.
I understand you’ve got a number of projects in the pipeline The Penitent Thief, Rapid Eye Movement, Avalanche, The Have and Have Nots and The Cleaning Lady… how challenging is it to switch hats so often? Do you ever tire of the jet-setting?
I commit myself fully to what I’m doing. Leading up to the filming, during and even after. I thrive when I’m working and I welcome playing roles in different mediums and shooting in different locations. It is a form of education and an opportunity to discover different cultures and meet very interesting people.
I’m very blessed to do what I do for a living for a long time now. I don’t know that I find it challenging because it has been habit for close to twenty years on camera and an additional ten on stage prior to that. New York theatre is where I earned my stripes into this tribe and it prepared me well. Nope, bring on the travel. I can sleep when I’m six feet under.
You’ve led an expansive film career and have amassed a far-reaching body of work… which role are you most proud of to date?
I’m not sure… it would have to be one that resonated with me very personally that I was passionate about. Either because it was a real person I was portraying or because I identified so closely with the character’s wants and needs. Or in some cases the theme and message of the film I was in. Just very difficult to choose one. The Bolivar Arellano character from the play 110 Stories comes to mind. I saw 9/11 happen, I lived in NY, I portrayed the man, the legend, and I am friends with him and love him and his family.
And I am grateful to Sarah Tuft for casting me because the show’s message and the casts I’ve worked with have been phenomenal. Also telling Bolivar’s story, to breathe life back into a character that witnessed and photographed the jumpers… it takes a lot and to do it over and over again, there’s something to be said for that, it has become my ‘go to’. So much so that I’ve produced it for many years now and brought some of my well-known friends into it with me to raise money for charity. To clarify, this isn’t a film but a play.
Many South African actors seem to find their way to Los Angeles – what advice would you give them?
I’m much more a New Yorker in the business, not a South African. I didn’t come here from South Africa as an actor. New York is where it broke wide open for me because of two plus decades of hard core theatre and being a part of the NY independent film community… so my experiences are very different than any other ‘South African’. But in
knowing and being friends with many South Africans in the acting community and giving many of them advice, I’d say the following:
Many do come out here but sadly very few of them build careers with a body of work or work often enough to even call it a career and they get very discouraged and take it personally. So my advice would be: prepare yourself both financially… make sure that you have a few years of living saved up in advance and be prepared to do something else for a living as it might never work out for you… and be prepared and unafraid to lose whatever bad habits you might have learned as an actor back home.
As a South African living in the United States, do you have any thoughts on what’s going on back home?
I was just back home a few weeks ago having shockingly and devastatingly lost my father, and the country seems very angry to me in general. I just hope and pray that every South African behaves and acts not out of fear or raw emotion, but out of responsibility and respect for their fellow citizens and neighbors.
What’s it like living in Trump America?
Will not comment on politics, when I’ve done so in the past it has always pissed someone off and why give someone on either side a reason not to hire me simply because I’m in the middle? I’d rather talk about the charities I work with. The African Wildlife Foundation is helping species in danger of becoming extinct. Operation Gratitude assembles and sends care packages to US Troops all over the world. Operation Mobilization is a missionary organization providing relief and helping refugees by sharing the gospel and volunteering in the some of the most dangerous parts of our planet.
I understand you’re very involved when it comes to creating awareness around Celiac’s Disease…
I was diagnosed a few years ago after being misdiagnosed. The inflammation from the disease attacked my organs and I found it very difficult to adjust to a gluten free life. But I’ve been pro-active speaking at events and sharing whenever and wherever I can.
Sharing important information about the disease is crucial. It doesn’t help that so many people are on gluten free diets to lose weight. They are doing it by choice; where those of us with the disease are doing it because we have no choice.